Friday, September 10, 2004

A Sermon on Faith

Faith. It’s such an ambiguous word, isn’t it? It’s a word that gets thrown around the church quite a bit, but it is fraught with such volatility that I’m wondering if we should be wearing protective goggles or body armour just to utter the word. Jesus said that faith could move mountains. Paul says that we be become in a right relationship with God through our faith. If that is true, then faith is not some innocuous addendum added on to all the various components that make up our lives. Faith is not to be confused with belief, although belief is certainly a part. Faith is not to be confused with doing good deeds, although good deeds undoubtedly flow from faith. Faith is more basic, and more transcendent. Faith more human, yet connects us with the divine. Faith pulls us into the deepest pit only to lift us to the highest heaven.

In the climax of Douglas Coupland’s novel Life After God, one of his characters eloquently shows us what I think faith looks like: “Now –here is my secret” he whispers, “I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

Sometimes I wonder if that’s what the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he unleashed his terrible invective against the people of God:

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen of the teachings of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

They have become of burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands [to me],
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

When I hear such harsh words, I hear them directly squarely at me. A few years ago, there was a stretch of about a couple months where it seemed the whole city of Halifax knocked on our church door looking for food or, which was most often the case: money. The church didn’t keep cash on hand, so I gave whatever was in my pocket, which was usually very little. Then folks began to figure out that the pastors lived next door to the church and our doorbell would ring just as we were sitting down to dinner, or late at night after we had finally gotten Sophie to sleep. Afer a few months of this, I began to experience Compassion Fatigue. I just didn’t want to help anyone else. I was tired of being bothered at my home. I was tired of being interrupted while working in the office. I was tired of being asked for food only to find the unopened cans of beans and bottles of ketchup unceremoniously dumped in the grass behind the church.

For a time, I resented bible passages such as this. “This can’t apply to me,” I would say to myself. “Poverty was different back then, there weren’t the community resources that we have today. Can’t these people just go to the Food Bank or Soup Kitchen – that’s what they’re there for?” I justified to myself.

But as I dug deeper into my feelings, I came to realize that my resentment and fatigue came from two sources: 1) A frustration that I didn’t have the resources to meet the demand and had to look too many people in the eye and tell them that I couldn’t help their family. 2) A lack of humility. Deep down, I felt that I was better then them. After all, I had a good education, a decent salary, a job I liked, a certain status in the community. These people were parasites, living off the wages of hard workers like myself. This coming from Mr. Social Justice.

So, each day I went to the office filled with both resentment and shame. Worship became poisoned with my arrogance. Like the people of Israel who felt the wrath of a just God, I too ignored the poor and the oppressed, I too had dismissed the needs of the needy, I too disregarded the pain of the most vulnerable of those around me, and I had the bitterness of heart to prove it.

But then I realized, this wasn’t about me or my feelings. This was about what God wants for the world. Maybe what God wanted from me was more humility, the realization that I needed God to help me do what God wanted me to do. I felt like that character in Life After God. I needed God to help me give, because I no longer seemed to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seemed capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.

I thought that perhaps God was teaching me what faith really looks like. The writer of Hebrews says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A life of faith doesn’t mean that the questions stop. In fact, the questions become more intense. But a life lived in faith is a life marked by humility. There can be no arrogant Christians because faith is not certainty. Certainty is measured, marked, tested, and proven. Faith a fumbling in the dark, stubbing-your-toe-on-the-desk-as-you-blindly-look-for-the-light-switch sort of life. It may not always be pretty, but it is honest.

But more to the point, I think a life of faith is a life lived in holy defiance; defiance of the powers of darkness of this world. Faith is when the romance has gone out from the marriage but you stay together determined to make the relationship work. Faith is grieving the loss of a child, yet still finding a way to minister to the world out that pain. Faith is looking out upon a world swallowed up in war and chaos and saying, I will not live like that.

But chiefly, faith is a life lived remembering, remembering God and God’s handiwork in our lives and the world.

35 year-old rabbi Stacy Leveson wrote,

“I recently had lunch with a friend of mine. After we finished…my friend looked at me oddly and commented, ‘You really have tremendous faith in God.’ ‘I do’, I responded, ‘when I remember to…’ There are times…when I ‘forget’ to believe in God. After moments, days, and occasionally even weeks when God’s presence pervades me and the world around me, I suddenly realize that it is gone, that my awareness of God has left me with out my notice…Yet while ‘forgetting’ is not a conscious act, ‘remembering’ is. Only when I look for evidence of God’s presence, only when I recognize that God is part of every relationship I have, every bite that I eat, and every drop of rain that falls from the sky, will my intellectual knowledge be replaced by an intimate awareness of God.”

Humility. Honesty. Hope-filled and holy defiance. Remembering God. Faith sure asks a lot from us.

Terry Anderson, the American Associated Press reporter kidnapped and held hostage in Beruit for 7 long years by radical Shiite Muslims wrote about faith upon his release in his poem appropriately called Faith.

Where is faith found?
Not in a book,
or in a church,
not often or for everyone.
In childish times it’s easier; a child believes just what it’s told.
But children grow
and soon begin to see too much that doesn’t match the simple tales,
and not enough of what’s behind their parents’ words.
There is no God, the cynics say;
we made Him up out of our own need
and fear of death.
And happily they offer up their test tube proofs.
A mystery, the priests all say, and point to the saints
who prove their faith in acts of love
and sacrifice.
But what of us who are not saints, only common,
human sinners?
And what of those who in their need
and pain cry out to God and go on suffering?
I do not know –
I wish I did.
Sometimes I feel all the world’s pain.
I only say
that once in my
own need I felt a light and warm
and loving touch that eased my soul
and banished doubt
and let me go
on to the end.
It is not proof – there can be none.
Faith is what you find when you’re alone
and find you’re not.



afterthoughtsdog said...

Could you please tell me how Noah, the very first shipbuilder, was able to make a ship out of wood to the scale noted in the Bible, even though trained shipbuilders thousands of years later are still unable to do it? Only when men began to use iron and steel could ships of this size hold together. Don't give me the word "faith" in your answer. This is a logical question with a logical answer. Also, don't tell me it was a miracle. No one, not even the Bible says it was a miracle. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

very good - very honest, and heartfelt. Probably one of the best sermons on the topic that I've ever read. as for the Noah related comment, has the poster ever paused to consider that it didn't actually happen the way that it's written?